ARM Fellow & VP of Media Processing Technology Jem Davies discusses how ARM and its partners are transforming processing to fit the demands of an ever-evolving consumer market. In this interview from SIGGRAPH 2014, Jem and Steve Waskul recount Jem’s past in working with operating systems and how his work with ARM has been propelled by the rapidly changing computer technology industry. Jem also gives us an inside look on some of the latest technology that has yet to hit the market.
Initiating the conversation, Mr. Waskul asks Jem to divulge how he came to be one of the industry leaders he is today. “Well,” Jem replies, I started as the “operating systems hacker guy, on the low level kernel.” A product of the Cambridge Phenomenon, Jem hit the ground running in 1981 consulting for Acorn Computers, later transitioning to a spinoff of the company called ARM. Having worked for ARM for the past 11 years as “Head Geek for media processing” Jem is delighted to have seen this company expand into an enterprise that can help partners deliver 1 billion devices a month based on ARM CPUs.
From light bulb controllers to CPUs, ARM has a hand in enabling production for a myriad of products. At this point Steve asks about the type of controllers out there and receives a surprising answer. Apart from using controllers to dim the lights at home and for intelligent city applications, it is now more cost effective to have a microprocessor to turn on a vacuum rather than a latching piece of plastic to operate the main power switch. Certainly times have changed, but, Jem comments, “It’s all about making things visually compelling for people – that hasn’t changed.”
As the conversation steers toward modern applications for ARM processors, Steve wonders what some of Jem’s favorite possibilities are for the processors. With an eye for the “offbeat,” Jem shares his fascination with a mobile device, like a smart phone, that has gesture recognition. Such a capability would enable the device to power off the back light when it detects its owner is no longer looking at the screen. Such sophisticated technology is highly appealing to consumers because it saves and consolidates power. “People are fed up with charging stuff,” Mr. Davies comments, leading the discussion toward energy budgets.
With this kind of device, Steve wonders, does it use more energy to continually scan for facial recognition than for the backlight to stay powered on? The key to making innovative technologies like this work is creating a balance between the energy it takes to do something and the energy it takes not to do something. Jem elaborates on this statement by pointing out that the art of graphics is all about cheating, about how many pixels you really need to render to still create the same caliber image. In 3D animation for example, rendering the back of a man’s shirt, is most likely unnecessary if you don’t see it in the camera’s view. Creating an energy balance is also dependent on battery power, and more importantly, the means to control the thermal energy that is generated by operating a device. Essentially, Steve summarizes, there’s always a trade-off between how long your battery’s going to last, how much power you’re using and the heat you’re creating.
Moving forward, Jem gives us some insight into what thoughts most occupy his day. Not only is he is excited to be working with Khronos Group on the next generation of a combined OpenGL / Open GL ES initiative that was recently announced, he is also focused on solving problems more efficiently with heterogeneous computing. Although, Jem explains, the technology is out there, the problem is with the application programme interfaces (APIs). Current interfaces can be difficult for programmers to interact with; consequently, this slows down adoption and integration of technology. A solution for this problem remains to be found and, for Jem, this has become a priority.
In the spirit of problem solving, Steve asks how ARM reaches out to people. “Two things people know about us,” Jem responds, “are low power and partnerships.” Because ARM designs and licenses out their products, they fully embrace the idea of an ecosystem. “Together with our partners there is nothing we cannot do,” Jem insists. He then discusses ARM’s big web presence on sites like Malideveloper.arm.com that are targeted toward assisting future partners with coding via examples and workshops.
“Does it seem like things are getting faster and faster as we get older and older?” Steve asks, eliciting Jem’s laughter. While Jem admits to feeling like some things are moving faster, he also notes that some unsolved computer science mysteries and the adoption of new technology move “appallingly slow.” The latter is of particular frustration for Jem because you “pour your heart and soul” into creating a new standard that may not get picked up for another 5 years. Is it risky for businesses to adopt new technology, Steve inquires, or just old habits? In Jem’s opinion it’s not such a question of if but when. Business leaders may wait for the technology to better fit their needs or take the risk as soon as it’s available – it really just depends on their strategies.
As the interview draws to a close, Steve asks what new technology or implementations we can expect to hit the market in the future. Having just acquired the Cambridge-based software company Geomerics, Jem is excited to be demonstrating Enlighten, the latest in real-time global illumination technology, on the SIGGRAPH floor. What makes this technology so amazing, Jem continues, is that it can do something that was previously not a possibility: bring high-end effects to mobile devices. This application to mobile devices is a hallmark of our times, Steve suggests; consumers want mobile devices and they want applications for those devices. Jem agrees, believing that consumers want all their electronic devices, like microwaves, designed with the same user-friendly interface that their mobile devices have. The bar has been raised, and for Jem, this signifies a bright future for the industry.